‘Holst Syndrome’: An Undiscovered Country

Bust of Gustav Holst at the Holst Birthplace Museum (http://www.holstmuseum.org.uk)

Bust of Gustav Holst at the Holst Birthplace Museum (http://www.holstmuseum.org.uk)

In a recent guest blog for Gramophone magazine, composer Raymond Yiu writes of his passion for British music and the sad situation in which just one or two works by a composer dominate the perception of that composer’s output.  You can read the blog at http://www.gramophone.co.uk/blog/gramophone-guest-blog/sounds-and-sweet-airs-that-give-delight.

Yiu calls this situation ‘Holst Syndrome’ – a most apt name for it, owing to Holst’s output being overshadowed by one work (overshadowed in terms of reception – certainly not musically), and not even the whole of that work: just a couple of movements of his 1914-16 Suite for Large Orchestra, The Planets.  It begs the question why people don’t work out from that work and explore some of the other pieces by Holst, although such explorations are not encouraged by the drearily repetitious Classic FM, which is one of the main culprits in defining the limitations of the populist canon of musical works.  There is such a remarkable body of work by Holst that is rarely heard, from the joyous Fugal Overture (for orchestra) to the large-scale The Cloud Messenger (alto solo, chorus and orchestra), which I admire enormously.  Or why not try the later work Hammersmith, or the Japanese Suite?  And if you enjoy song, then look up the Humbert Wolfe songs, which are wonderful.

As Yiu states in his blog post, there are so many facets to English music: there is the quirky and playful (while on the subject of Holst, try The Floral Bandit in the Wolfe songs!); the regal; the exotic and mystical; there are great depths of despair; and of course the ‘pastoral’, which is seen by some as the definition of English music but which is a term that somehow defies full definition and encompasses a broad range of music.  I was pleased to see Michael Tippett’s fourth symphony singled out on his list – a marvellous work.  There are several lifetime’s worth of listening getting to know all of the music that is available to us – and more keeps being written.  I know many byways of British music, but have many paths yet to tread, such as Vaughan Williams’s 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies which I don’t yet know, and the Rubbra symphonies are on my shelves to devour at some point – although there are not only symphonies to discover.  But while on the subject of this genre, and to add a little to Raymond Yiu’s list,

Kenneth Leighton, 1929-88(Photograph: Jo Leighton)

Kenneth Leighton, 1929-88
(Photograph: Jo Leighton)

I urge you to listen to Kenneth Leighton’s three symphonies (the numbered works – there is also a Symphony for Strings), which are now available on Chandos Records (www.chandos.net).  Leighton deserves a larger place in our musical canon.  Like Herbert Howells (seek out Howells’s piano concerti or Hymnus Paradisi!), Leighton’s works written for the church are known in choral/cathedral music circles, but very little else is known about or performed.  His chamber music is well worth exploring, but for me his symphonies are particularly fine.  They are almost cyclical in nature, and the first grows out of an almost Sibelius sound-world into works of lyrical beauty, extraordinary energy and vitality, and great, dark depths.  I lament the fact that Leighton died before he was able to complete his fourth…  Leighton was also a very fine pianist and wrote much for the piano.  If a symphony is too much to bear, then try his late Four Romantic Pieces for piano.  They are available for download (very cheaply for such wonderful music!) at The Classical Shop (final four tracks).

So: keep an open mind and don’t be tram-lined into hearing just the few ‘popular’ pieces by any composer.  With the internet it is now a very short and easy journey to discover so much more about a composer and his works.


5 thoughts on “‘Holst Syndrome’: An Undiscovered Country

  1. First of all, thank you so much for reading my original article and mentioning it here. It means so much to me.

    Due to space, I could only mention a handful of composers. But I am glad it triggers waves of discussion, and hopefully it will get people to listen, explore with curiosity. Leighton is a good example, and I do admire his music greatly. But I am rather surprised that you didn’t mention Holst’s ‘Egdon Heath’ – definitely one of his best works.

    Finzi is reasonably popular these days, but that somehow overshadows the small but interesting output of Howard Ferguson (whose Concerto for Piano and Strings, Partita for two pianos and Octet are sublime). Other names that didn’t make into my article include Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley, William Alwyn, Arthur Bliss (who incidentally is BBC Music Magazine January issue Composer of the Month), Yoke Bowen, Alan Bush, Rebecca Clarke, Arnold Cooke, Herbert Howell, Walter Leigh, Alan Rawsthorne, Peter Warlock, etc. They need to be seen, mentioned and programmed more, in context preferably. We are very luck to have recording labels such as Hyperion, Chandos, EMI and the smaller, independent ones to keep some of these composers’ music available. But it is also important listeners know when to place these composers in the bigger picture. NMC Music Map is a useful start: http://www.nmcrec.co.uk/musicmap

    British Music Society is another useful source: http://www.britishmusicsociety.com/

  2. Absolutely! There are SO many composers who should be commanding our attention – perhaps that is why people don’t branch out from what they know? The decision as to where to start is perhaps far too daunting.

    Ferguson is certainly someone else I admire – The Dream of the Rood is another very fine piece. He is indeed in part overshadowed by Finzi, who was a close friend of Fergie’s, but I think is also overlooked partly on account of his being so important as an editor, and also because he produced only a relatively small body of work before deciding to hang up his compositional pen, believing that he had said all that he had to say. My CD shelves have large sections devoted to Bliss, Howells and, to a lesser extent, Bax and Warlock, but I have little of the others you mention some of whom are certainly on my list to discover. But there are yet more! Robin Milford (another friend of Finzi), Ivor Gurney (my own specialist subject) – not to mention the many contemporary composers whose names which will be readily found on the NMC website. As well as the BMS, there are numerous small composer societies, devoted to promoting the work of their individual composers (although I think it a particular travesty that there is no Hubert Parry Society – another composer worthy of far more press than merely ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘I was Glad’), and organisations and events such as the English Music Festival which takes place each May (http://www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk) and the triennial Ludlow Weekend of English Song, which is happening this year at the end of May/early-June (http://www.ludlow-english-song-weekend.org.uk). (In case it is of interest, I’m performing unpublished works by Parry and Finzi, and Howells’s rarely heard ‘By the Waters of Babylon’ during the latter event!)

  3. I only heard ‘Cotswolds Symphony’ once, but if I remember it correctly, it is indeed wonderful – possibly not as striking as the ‘Choral Symphony’ in my mind. I am going through all the symphonies and concertos by Edmund Rubbra at the moment – a composer I admire greatly.

  4. I so very much agree with this – and especially in the case of Holst. I have been passionately devoted to his music since I was at school, and unlike most (apparently) I *did* move on from The Planets to his other work; I think now I have heard pretty much everything he ever wrote that has ever been performed/recorded! Not only was he a great composer, but he was a great *example* to composers, in his seriousness about the essentially spiritual role of the creative artist, and his great modesty and lack of worldly ambition or interest in money. My favourites are The Hymn of Jesus (one of the visionary masterpieces of the 20th century). ‘Savitri’, the Choral Fantasia and the various groups of songs for men’s and women’s voice with strings. All of these works and many others deserve to be far better known.
    Laurence Hughes

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